"You can't win your league in the first round, but you can lose it." I've used that line a lot over the years, and it's proved to be true time and again. The first round (especially the first pick) is not a place to get cute or mess around. If you blow your first-round pick, you're probably done for the season. Just ask anyone with Adrian Peterson on their team last year.
The other line I use a lot -- I'm both a slave to tradition and fairly lazy -- is this: "You don't have to finish the year as the No. 1 player to be worth being the No. 1 pick." Both statements are practical, preaching being conservative over swinging for the fences early on.
That safety is why Jamaal Charles is my pick for No. 1. (Truthfully, he's neck-and-neck with Peterson for me now that Peterson has reported to the Vikings, but this article is about Charles.) Charles is the safest guy. No suspensions looming, no insane usage during the past four years where you worry about a decline, no injury concerns, no age or off-the-field issues, no concerns about lack of carries or him being touchdown-dependent. No, Jamaal Charles is as safe as they come.
Since Andy Reid took over the Kansas City Chiefs, no running back has scored more fantasy points in ESPN standard scoring than Charles. In fact, he is second in fantasy points during the past three years across all positions. People will point to last season as being a down year for Charles, but I disagree. Yes, he went from 19 touchdowns in 2013 to 14 last season, but look closer: He had the same yards per carry, and he was still top-five in the NFL among running backs in yards per rush, rushing touchdowns, receiving touchdowns and routes run. He averaged basically the same number of rushing yards after contact and receiving yards after contact and, per our friends at Pro Football Focus, actually had more fantasy points on a per-carry basis than he did in 2013.
Charles' touches were down last season, as were his touchdowns, so the people who want to knock him use those stats. That's misguided to me. Touchdowns from year to year are fluky (and again, he scored nine rushing touchdowns), and he touched the ball almost 250 times. Adding Ben Grubbs to the offensive line should help, and the additions of Jeremy Maclin and a fully healthy Travis Kelce to start the season will improve an offense that averaged five points per game fewer in 2014 than it did in 2013.
But the argument for Charles is found not in last year's stats but rather throughout his career. He has played at least 15 games in six of seven seasons, so he is the least likely running back of the top options to fall off the cliff. Every year there is at least one Doug Martin-type who goes high in drafts and doesn't return value. If you were to rank the guys at the top in terms of likelihood to fail and not return value, Charles would be ranked last. He is the clear focal point of a good offense. He is a tough runner but also is used so much in the passing game and creatively in space that the chance of injury is less than for some running backs who just slam into the line play after play. And he is still relatively young, at 28. And I like that there is a clear-cut handcuff in Knile Davis. If you draft Charles, you can grab Davis and feel pretty good that if something happens, you can plug in Davis and get close to the same production. You can't say that about any of the other backups to the top options. That is, if you can even identify who the backup is for some of them.
Seventh in points last season, first in total points the past two years, second in total points the past three years, Charles is as close to money in the bank to return top-10 fantasy value at running back as there is in the game today. And like I said, you don't have to finish the year at No. 1 to be worthy of the No. 1 pick. You want surefire, elite-level production with your first-round pick, and there's no surer thing for that than Jamaal Charles.